Kagawa only wanted United
As United supporters around the world await the completion of Shinji Kagawa’s transfer to Old Trafford, we catch up with Bundesliga expert Raphael Honigstein to shed light on the player set to become the Reds’ first Japanese signing…
How good a signing have United made?
It’s a brilliant signing. A lot of clubs would have liked to make the move, but United benefited from one of the rare instances where a player had really made up his mind that he wanted to play for a specific club. Of course money is important, but for him it was almost more of a romantic notion of joining United, and the others had no chance. They tried to get very near United’s offer, but Kagawa had made up his mind that this was his dream and he wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity. All sorts of clubs were trying to sign him and I think it’s a real coup for United to get him.
Which other clubs were interested in him?
Well, you never quite know just how far they got because the indications from the player and his agent were always very clear - that he was only going to move to United - so they didn’t get very far. I think Arsenal and Chelsea certainly looked at him, Real Madrid very late on in the game became aware of his potential, but United stole a march on everyone because the player wanted to go there. It’s easy to be cynical and sometimes players just sign for whoever offers the most money, but it’s fair to say this instance was different. He really wanted to go to United and wouldn’t listen to any other offers, as far as I’m aware.
What are his key attributes?
Kagawa isn't an Arjen Robben or a Franck Ribery type who picks up the ball and everyone starts shaking with fear; the guy almost works in a stealthier way. He finds space and he touches it when it’s already too late.
He’ll find space behind a full-back or he’ll play someone in with a first touch pass and you maybe don’t have time to worry about him because he’s already outsmarted you. That’s the kind of stuff he does. He doesn’t run at people. He’s not a real winger. For Japan he plays out wide, but always with a constant view to cut in, and for Dortmund his best role was as a fairly free second striker in a more forward attacking role. He found space a lot of times on the left, would pop up on the right and he’s really good at what he does.
Are there any areas of his game he particularly needs to work on?
Not really. I don’t think the Premier League is necessarily more physical than the Bundesliga. There might be more running, but it’s hard to top what Dortmund have done in terms of sheer ground they cover. If there’s any player who will find the tempo easy to adapt to, it’s him. He’s never going to be a big threat in terms of heading ability, but that’s not going to change and you don’t need him to. That’s really it. He just needs to keep growing as a player and become even more consistent. The team he’s played in was near-perfect and he really found the perfect position for himself so it’s hard, on the back of that, to think of too many faults. You could say maybe he needs to bulk up ever so slightly if he’s going to be played consistently out wide, where he’s going to have to hold off full-backs.
How important was he in Dortmund’s recent successes?
He was certainly very good in the first season, but then he got injured in January 2011 and he missed the great run they had towards the end of 2010/11 when they really pulled away. The real strong stuff came when he was injured, but he was still an integral part of winning the Bundesliga title. In 2011/12 though, he really was arguably their most influential performer after Robert Lewandowski.
Mario Götze missed four months of the season and people hardly noticed because Kagawa was so good. He also made Lewandowski look really good because the understanding between the two is just phenomenal. Everybody should watch the second goal that they scored against Bayern in the cup final last month. It’s all one-touch and you could see they instinctively knew where each other was.
How impressive was his adaptation to life in Germany, on and off the field?
Dortmund isn’t one of the more multicultural cities in Germany - I think there was one sushi restaurant which he went to - but that just shows how adaptable he is because it was still easy it was for him to settle on and off the pitch. I think it’ll be much easier for him in Manchester after two years in Dortmund, and that’s another reason why United were keen on him; there’s no question mark over him which you might get when buying a player straight from Asia. It was the same with Ji-sung Park; after playing in Holland he found it easy to make the move to England.
Which parts of his game suggest he can adapt to the Premier League?
All parts. His attitude is just phenomenal on and off the pitch. He’s a guy everyone loves; nobody has a bad thing to say about him. He’s a little bit shy but a tremendous professional and a great team-mate. His attitude is top class. That, on top of his unique skills set, is tailor-made for the Premier League. His attributes are pace, directness, one-touch play, and it all lends itself to playing at the highest level. Plus he can only improve because he’s still very young and if you think where he’s come from in a very short space of time – the Japanese second division, to winning the Bundesliga back-to-back and now going to United - I think we’ve only seen a glimpse of what he can do. If he can continue on that career path then the guy will be one of the greats.
Where do you see him fitting in at United?
He definitely gives you an option to play 4-2-3-1, the way that United played in 2007/08, which is arguably the best football they’ve played in recent years. He gives you that ability not just from his intelligence, but from his workrate because you know you can play him out wide and if need be, he can go 4-5-1 with the wide players coming back and he will do that no problem because he’s got such an amazing work ethic and his legs are brilliant. He gives you so many options and I’m sure he’s also a good impact player if you wanted to start him on the bench. He’ll definitely improve the team and the squad straight away. I think he’ll force his way in and Ferguson will find a way to accommodate him because he’s too good to be left out.